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Durga’s fury

By Melody Kemp - posted Monday, 1 October 2007

Last week I was told that the US had promised it’s old adversary Vietnam, technical assistance to build nuclear power plants. To their embarrassment they found that the Vietnamese still held weapons grade uranium given to them by the Russians during the American War of the 1970’s. So now the Vietnamese are quietly going around saying “Pssst, want some great weapons grade uranium?” on the global market.

They could try India.

“India has been planning its nuclear program even before independence period of the 1950’s, after some Indian graduates from Berkeley ordered critical parts to build a cyclotron before they could return home” said Sreedhar Ramamurthi, whom I recently met in Hong Kong, at a gathering of labour groups from the greater Asian region. At the beginning of his career, Sreedhar was employed as a Scientific Officer with India’s Department of Atomic Energy.


A highly qualified earth scientist, Sreedhar was in charge of India’s uranium exploration efforts for a couple of years until he resigned in protest at the lack of social responsibility.

“If you record surface levels of radiation, then it should be reported so that people can avoid those areas. You know how settlements expand. But I was sworn to secrecy.”

In 1948, India set up its own atomic energy commission to search for and extract uranium ore. The atomic energy commission then set up the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) later that year as a public sector enterprise.

Under the administrative control of India's atomic energy commission UCIL began its first uranium operations in 1968 at Jaduguda, mining and processing 1,000 metric tones a day. Under the scumble of tailings the soil continues to radiate. The minority people, particularly the children, have been exhibiting terrible illnesses, their environment devastated. It is just the sort of situation that caused Sreedhar to resign. The evidence of neglect of its peoples, coupled with the serial denial of UCIL’s officials, is knocking the heads off statues being erected to safeguards and the value of international inspections.

It’s not Chernobyl. Instead, critics argue, children with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, swollen heads, missing eyes and ears, fused fingers, blood disorders, and brain damage are the result of constant exposure to very low toxic levels of emission. Contamination is now virtually everywhere around Jaduguda.

The Adivasis, two groups, the Ho and the Santhal, have lived here for hundreds - possibly thousands - of years. This should ring bells of comparability with the Australian Aboriginal peoples, whose land sits above uranium fields and who have been bullied and coerced by both the governments and the mining companies to hand over rights to mine. It is into this India, of low level sources and indignant denial, that Prime Minister Howard has decided to drop Australian uranium. The recent amendments to the 1975 Aboriginal Land Rights Act have enabled the Howard Government to become the Fuller Brush men of a nuclear future.


Follow the leader

Recently John Howard struck a deal to sell uranium to New Delhi in a telephone conversation with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. Following US President George W. Bush, he noted earlier that sales to India would depend on the implementation of a landmark civilian nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington. But as we know, shit happens.

"Australia has decided in principle to export uranium to India, subject to India agreeing to very stringent safeguards and conditions," Howard told reporters. Such as those in operation at Jaguduga one would suppose.

Howard went on. "Our officials will now enter into negotiations regarding the conditions. We want to be satisfied that the uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes." Such shallow depth of field.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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